Just when I'm beginning to feel that winter is never going to end, the first seed catalogue arrives in the mail. Almost as welcome as the first snowdrop, it marks the beginning of a delightful time of year for gardeners—a chance to consider the many plant possibilities and anticipate next season's garden.
Starting the seeds
Container options include plastic cell packs, peat or plastic pots, soil blocks (which are subsequently planted directly into the ground) and recycled items such as milk cartons or yogurt containers with holes punched in the bottom. The plastic trays with corrugated bottoms available from garden centres are ideal for holding the containers.
You can use either a soilless mix or potting soil, but the planting medium must be able to absorb and hold moisture, be fluffy so it won't form a crust, and be free from weed seeds and soil-borne diseases, which can cause damping off (see “Dirty, rotten scoundrels,” below). After filling containers, press soil down gently but firmly; don't pack it too hard. Water until it's moist but not soggy.
There are several different seed-sowing techniques you can employ. An easy, dependable method is to plant several seeds in each individual cell pack or container. Very tiny seeds, and those requiring light to germinate, should be pressed into the surface of the soil but not covered. For most other seeds, make a small hole with a blunt pencil or similar implement and plant the seed about twice as deep as its size.
Label each container with a waterproof marker and record the date, type and variety name. Keep a separate record of the source of the seeds and germination requirements, leaving room for future notes. Over the years, this record book will be a valuable resource.
Cover the containers with clear plastic (such as dry-cleaning bags) to preserve moisture; for seeds that need to be kept in the dark to germinate, use black or green garbage bags. If light is required, site seeds where they'll receive indirect light. For seeds needing warm temperatures, there are several options. My favourite spot used to be on top of an older, energy-inefficient refrigerator. Alternatively, you could use heating cables (available from garden centres), or put the containers under grow lights, leaving them on continuously. Start with the lights well above (about 30 cm) the containers, and put a thermometer under the plastic. Keep lowering the lights until the desired temperature is reached. I generally check every 20 to 30 minutes or so initially.
Dirty, rotten scoundrels
Several fungi that live in the soil can cause damping off, a disease that attacks stems at the soil line, causing seedlings to rot and fall over; overwatering makes seedlings more susceptible. To help prevent damping off, let the soil surface dry out between waterings. If stems become infected, however, cut out the affected seedlings immediately and discard.
Other preventive measures include applying a one-time dusting of cinnamon powder after seeds are sown and watered (before seeds sprout); watering or misting with weak camomile tea; or using commercial products such as No-Damp. -Anne Marie Van Nest